Students to start in school on staggered schedule

Aug 19, 2020

Older students in the Dartmouth Public School system won’t begin in-person lessons until Oct. 19 due to a staggered start for the hybrid learning plan, following a unanimous decision by the School Committee at an Aug. 18 meeting.

At the meeting, administrators and officials delved into details for the school plan and alluded to an influx of messages from parents following last week’s decision to delay the in-person start.

“I understand not everyone is happy with our decision, nor did I expect them to be,” said committee Chair Chris Oliver. “Just like you, I want what’s best for my daughter, who also attends the Dartmouth Public Schools.”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford noted that a survey sent to parents earlier this summer in which a large majority indicated a preference for in-person learning was “really just a temperature check, not a vote.”

“I just want folks to remember that [a tool from the governor detailing which districts could reopen] was released after the vote,” she continued. “So unfortunately we didn’t have that information.”

Administrators plan on holding a virtual meeting to address questions from parents and other stakeholders in the near future. Meanwhile, Gifford outlined details for the current plan.

From Sept. 15 to 30, all students will learn through a robust remote platform that will include regular daily schedules with required attendance and grades. Teachers will conduct live lessons from classrooms and assign students work as normal, with project-based work and breaks.

“I don’t want people to think that a child is going to sit and stare at a computer for six hours,” said Gifford as she presented the plan to the committee.

Students who choose a fully remote plan for the entire semester may be able to start the school year with a platform called Edgenuity, which administrators have chosen for a virtual option once hybrid lessons start. A different platform for the elementary schools has yet to be chosen.

The district’s hybrid plan features in-person classes every other day, with thorough cleaning of school surfaces and spraying down classrooms every night. Officials have also purchased air purifiers and enough PPE to last at least a few months, School Business Administrator Jim Kiely noted.

Courses requiring more safety guidance include chorus, band, and musical theater lessons, which will be outdoors only. Non-musical theater and physical education classes will be held outside or inside with masks and social distancing.

A decision concerning fall sports is expected from the state’s education department later this week, Gifford said.

Students will start in-person lessons on a staggered schedule in October. Those in Pre-K through Grade 2, plus Grade 6, will start on Oct. 1 or 2 for orientation, depending on their cohort.

Cohorts are still in the process of being drawn up, and Gifford stated that it is a complicated process, with siblings across schools and grade levels put into the same cohort. “We cannot take requests,” she stated. “It is too difficult.”

The first full week of school for those grade levels will begin on Oct. 5, with Cohort A attending in-person lessons on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and Cohort B on Tuesday and Thursday. Cohorts A and B will switch days every week.

Students in Grades 3-5 and Grade 7 will be phased in starting Oct. 13, while older students — those in Grade 8 and all high school levels — will begin the week of Oct. 19.

Part of the reason the older students start last, noted School Committee member Dr. Shannon Jenkins, is because they don’t have the same teachers all day — making contact tracing more difficult and increasing the risk of spreading the virus. 

Transportation will be “very challenging,” noted Kiely. With a state-mandated maximum of 25 students on each bus, thorough cleaning protocols, and two sets of routes — one for each cohort, double the usual number — in the geographically third largest town in the state, Kiely said, “We’re gonna have our hands full.”

Gifford said that next steps for the district will be to continue to prepare the buildings for the upcoming year, continue negotiations with the educators’ union, and monitor the progress of neighboring districts’ hybrid models.

“We hope they are successful,” she said. Officials also plan to create tutorial videos for virtual platforms.

Oliver also noted that a subcommittee examining diversity and equality in the school system — and looking particularly at the high school Indian logo — will likely be formed later in the fall.

The next School Committee meeting will take place in person at the High School media center on Sept. 1. The meeting will be streamed live.